Little Bastards in Springtime / Katja Rudolph
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
Oh my goodness, I've just finished this book that has jumped to the top of my favourites for this year. It was a completely serendipitous find, a new book coming across the counter at the library and pointed out to me by a coworker -- I hadn't seen any prepub information on this one, hadn't heard about it at all. But it was SO. GOOD. The design of this book is also perfect; that cover is brilliant, and the internal design is also really suited to the story. That just added to the pleasure of reading it.
It didn't seem to be 'my' kind of book (whatever that is) at first glance, but I'm really focusing on Canadian work lately so decided to try it. It's written by a UK-born Torontonian, and focuses on the experience of a young boy who lives through the Siege of Sarajevo, and then moves to Canada. What effect does living in a war zone have on a child? How does this experience shape him when he moves to a 'safe' location, which seems to be enormously insulated and self-satisfied to him, in comparison to what his family has gone through? What part does PTSD play in the assimilation of new immigrants from war zones?
This novel faces up to the questions of the effects of violence on different people, from young boys and girls to widows and senior citizens. It's split into three parts; first, Jevrem's experience at age 11, at the beginning of the war in 1992, secondly, his new life in Toronto at age 16, and thirdly, what happens when he decides he has to change his life. It's raw, violent (but not unreadably so), sad, thoughtful, and utterly hypnotic.
Reading this book about the war in the former Yugoslavia was eye-opening. I knew as much as most of us do about that war, but this book reveals so much of the inner life of the people experiencing it. It isn't bitter, isn't didactic or full of historical fact or research -- it is absolutely full of energy, of the voice of this thoughtful, traumatized boy Jevrem. Even when he becomes what we might think of as a thug and hoodlum, we still hear the good that is at the heart of him. His grandmother plays a big role in his development, as well as his mother and his younger sister; the women in this story are wonderfully drawn. I was amazed by how concerned I felt about Jevrem's path -- when I had to put this book down to go to work I couldn't stop thinking about it, I wanted to know which direction he was going to choose, how he was going to survive.
It's told with the classic twist, a revelation that Jevrem is writing this document himself. Although sometimes I find that technique unbelievable, in this case, it makes sense, and his presence and voice throughout the first-person narrative doesn't falter. It's a powerful read, a brilliant look at the inner lives of those around us, of their experiences that we might be completely unaware of. Or, even if we are aware of someone's background, we may not have a deep understanding of the effects of living through war or trauma, or how that reveals itself in a person's reactions to the world. This novel is a deeply empathetic reminder.
I loved the first section, was horrified and enthralled by the second, and found the third just slightly less strong. Sarajevo and Toronto are living, breathing characters in the story; when the third section moves into the USA I was just a shade less fascinated, as Jevrem doesn't inhabit that landscape quite as thoroughly. However, I think that this story is a necessary, powerful, fast-paced yet deeply thoughtful read. What is the meaning of survival? How does one carry on after loss and trauma? How does art fit in? Why are we even here? What good is nationalism, anyway? Rudolph raises all these questions, provides various answers for them, and makes the reader struggle with these questions for ourselves.
I'm amazed that this is a first novel. It's an extremely satisfying read, one based on complex characters, amazing settings, a strong plot, and clear skillful writing. I'd highly recommend this to anyone who feels the need to grow in understanding of the internal experience of war upon civilians. Or those who love a fresh voice. Or anyone who wants to be absorbed into a boy's story of survival. This one is a winner.